On a busy stretch of midtown Manhattan, a somewhat unknown and unloved modern building has quietly been demolished. The Donnell Library (1955), a modest piece of design nestled among the likes of Philip Johnson, Edward Durell Stone and Yoshio Taniguchi, stood on the south side of West 53rd Street and was designed by Edgar I. Williams and Aymar Embury II. One would not generally use the term ‘handsome’ or ‘elegant’ to describe the Donnell library, especially when comparing it to its high profile neighbors, but the library’s architecture was a unique hybrid, a sort of transitional form of modernism. Built at a cost of $2.5 million, the Donnell‘s limestone façade consisted of an assuring symmetrical pattern of square windows above a lively pedestrian-friendly glass ground-floor. While the more transparent ground level glazing is reminiscent of more traditional modernism, the puncture like apertures above the street level resonate more with late modernism or even brutalist structures, making this an interesting piece of the modern lineage. The library design was unobtrusive and inoffensive yet on an island where square feet is king, its lack of fuss (good or bad) was most likely its downfall.
Public interest in this space is perhaps just now beginning. After the building was vacant for a number of years and scheduled to make way for a new 11-story hotel, the property changed hands this past March. In its place, a 46-story mixed-use Skidmore, Owing and Merrill building is in the works. While the city, the developers and the public discuss the merits of such a proposal, we bid the humble Donnell Library adieu.